I. HEGEL IN FRANCE
There have been a number of times in history when the (re)discovery of something from the past by a culture or a community has had a remarkably stimulating and revitalizing effect on the work of that community. The discovery of Aristotle’s texts in the Christian West in the thirteenth century led to a sort of philosophical revolution in the works of Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. The works of Plato provided a seemingly inexhaustible source of nourishment and inspiration for the cultural imagination of the Italian Renaissance. Although never lost, St. Paul’s writings from the New Testament were in a sense “rediscovered” by Martin Luther, leading to a revolutionary reformation of the Christian church. Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s experience of the art of the Hellenistic and Hellenic world led to an explosive “classicism” in German writers. The unearthing of the works in Lascaux, and related “discoveries” of “primitive” art around the world led to a revolution in twentieth-century European art. In each of these cases, the revolutionary developments are new; yet, nonetheless, there is an important sense in which they are – and are seen to be – a kind of belated reception of the force of those “original” works. There is a profound sense in which the rediscovered works motivate and shape the original and revolutionary cultural developments, even as those developments themselves give new life and new meaning to those older documents or artifacts.
Something similar could be said about the role of the texts of Hegel in French intellectual culture of the 1930s and 1940s.1
In particular, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit
of 1807 demonstrated some of its incredible potency through the huge impact it had on original work in many different areas of intellectual culture. Prior to the late 1920s, Hegel’s philosophy was known almost exclusively through his Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences
. The Encyclopaedia
, although vast and rich in its content, is opaque and schematic, written by Hegel as a handbook to accompany his lectures. Careful reading of the Encyclopaedia
, especially by those highly conversant with his central works – the Phenomenology of Spirit
and the Science of Logic
– reveals it to be a powerful and exciting work of philosophy; when it was read in isolation from his other texts and without a strong understanding of the principles of Hegel’s philosophy, however, the work appeared dry and, indeed, machine-like in its attempt to categorize systematically the full range of reality. The introduction of Hegel’s Phenomenology
to French readers – especially through the work of Jean Wahl and Alexandre Koyré2
– suddenly presented a new Hegel, vibrant, provocative, and revolutionary. Initially through these writers, and subsequently through a multiyear seminar on Hegel’s Phenomenology
led by Alexandre Kojève from 1933 to 1939, a new Hegel was discovered who spoke powerfully to the existential contradictions
of personal and interpersonal life, to the motor and meaning of historical and political development, to the stifling and alienating conditions of modern social life, to the transformative power of artistic creation, to the dynamism and life of the mind, and to the “irrationality” of reason.3
In Hegel’s text, vital new resources were discovered for engaging with many of the most pressing concerns of contemporary life.
The reception of Hegel flowed down many different channels. Wahl, Koyré, Kojève, and Jean Hyppolite were engaged in the scholarly interpretation of Hegel.4
In Jacques Lacan, Hegel’s ideas intersected with the tradition of psychoanalysis. Hegel’s philosophy had a significant impact on the artistic world through André Breton and the surrealists, a trajectory that, in the work of Georges Bataille, also intersects with the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss and structuralist anthropology.5
Indeed, this line of structuralism, with its roots in the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, also intersects with Lacan and the psychoanalytic stream, and later flows into the deconstruction of Jacques Derrida. Hegel’s work had a direct and powerful impact on existentialism, through Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, a trajectory itself interwoven, in the works of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jacques Derrida, with the mainstream trajectory of phenomenology that had been developing through the works of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. Many of these thinkers, too, can also be understood to be continuing the tradition of Marxism, and, through the work of Beauvoir, Hegel’s text was involved in some of the most influential work in the founding of contemporary feminism. The explosive influence of Hegel’s thought and texts is thus implicated in, and significantly contributed to, the interweaving of surrealism, existentialism, Marxism, structural linguistics, structural anthropology, psychoanalysis, feminism, phenomenology, deconstruction and the discipline of the history of philosophy. Indeed, as Merleau-Ponty rightly says, “all the great philosophical ideas of the last century – the philosophies of Marx and Nietzsche, phenomenology, German existentialism,
and psychoanalysis – had their beginnings in Hegel,” and “there would be no paradox involved in saying that interpreting Hegel means taking a stand on all the philosophical, political, and religious problems of our century.”6
Like Hellenistic sculpture, the works of Aristotle and the epistles of St. Paul, Hegel’s Phenomenology
offers inexhaustible resources. The critical appropriations of this philosophy, however, typically also involved various expressions of critical dissatisfaction. These critical appropriations were interwoven with interpretations of Hegel that ranged from sensitive but imperfect to highly incompetent, and along with a recognition of many of his great insights came a legacy of outrageous misrepresentations that have themselves influentially colored the subsequent developments in French philosophy. The “meaning” of a text or a philosophy – Hegel’s or any other – will always be open-ended, for its meaning will always be its significance as defined by the living parameters of the world in which it is apprehended, and thus the “reading” of Hegel’s text is not simply a matter of reconstituting an already fully accomplished sense but will always be interpretation, will always be transformative.7
This undecidability of the authoritative meaning of the text does not, however, change the fact that Hegel’s text is itself very determinate, and the text itself thus still offers itself as a standard for judging the adequacy of any “reading,” and the history of the reception of Hegel in French philosophy must be recognized to be as much a history of misrepresentation, (significantly because of the incredible difficulty of Hegel’s text) as it is the Wirkungsgeschichte
of that text, which defines retroactively what it was able to mean. Nonetheless, through the embrace of Hegelian ideas in response to and within the phenomenological movement, the reading of Hegel grew progressively more substantial and more rigorous, reaching a kind of culmination in the works of Merleau-Ponty and Derrida from the late 1940s through the early 1960s. In what follows, I will address the reception of Hegel as a response to the phenomenological philosophy that had been developing in the works of Husserl and Heidegger. My primary orientation will not be toward the claims about Hegel made by the various figures involved, but toward how they can be seen to be deploying Hegelian themes as those are understood by the best contemporary scholarship on Hegel.8
II. THE NEW HEGEL OF THE 1920S AND 1930S: REASON AS OPEN SENSE
Hegel’s philosophy is the project of being rigorously committed to allowing whatever appears
to show itself on its own terms, and philosophy is thus a project of bearing witness to the dynamism by which the phenomenon transforms itself for its own reasons. This is what Hegel calls “phenomenology” or “the science of the experience of consciousness.”9
Hegel’s philosophy was revolutionary in the history of philosophy for introducing this new method of philosophy: the method of adopting a stance of descriptive receptivity to the self-motion of the object. Hegel’s philosophy is unique – at least prior to parallel developments in twentieth-century phenomenology – in being rigorously and by definition without a thesis or an author. Hegel’s philosophy is true exactly insofar as it does not present views attributable to the author “Hegel,” but instead is only a site for the self-presentation of the phenomenon itself according to its own standards. This rigorous demand that the philosopher not import a point of view of his or her own equally means that the process of description cannot presume in advance to know what rules to follow or what principles to use in interpretation. Hegel’s method, in other words, is the abrogation of method, and his bearing witness to the sense
of the phenomenon itself – which Hegel calls variously die Vernunft, der Geist
or der Begriff
, that is, in English, reason, spirit, or concept – is precisely a renunciation of all conceptions of an independent reason that could define in advance the terms of meaningfulness. It is the phenomena themselves, in their own self-manifestation, that must be the very Darstellung
(presentation) of sense, or rationality.
That the sense of things must emerge from their own dynamism, and cannot be measured by some alien, predefined, static “reason,” is probably the single most salient idea in Hegel’s phenomenology. Merleau-Ponty writes:
It was [Hegel] who started the attempt to explore the irrational and integrate it into an expanded reason that remains the task of our century. He is the inventor of that Reason, broader than the understanding, which can respect the variety and singularity of individual consciousnesses, civilizations, ways of thinking, and historical contingency but which nevertheless does not give up the attempt to master them in order to guide them to their own truths.10
studies violent struggles for personal recognition and glory, slavery, religious ecstasy, Hellenic funerary practices, the Roman emperor, sun worship and Dionysiac processions. Hegel’s philosophy teaches one not to look “up” to universal principles, but to look “into” the specificities and singularities of determinate realities, and to find sense within things, events, and practices that are pointedly nonuniversal. This conception of reason as immanent sense leads to the prominence of the theme of the philosophical interpretation of history as the phenomenon of freedom realizing itself; as thus self-creative, history is a process that actually accomplishes meaning rather than being a vehicle for an already established sense. This notion is paralleled by Hegel’s emphasis on the primacy of the practical in general, seen especially in his analysis of the distinctive form of self-consciousness – namely, the consciousness of oneself as a competent agent and a participant in the real – that is accomplished through the experience of work.11
These aspects of the Hegelian conception of meaning resonated with a number of emerging cultural movements in France in the 1920s.
The Hegelian themes of the inherent meaningfulness of history and work characterize the writings of Marx that self-consciously drew on these Hegelian ideas and that made their own explosive entry into French culture at roughly the same time as the discovery of Hegel, through the discovery of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844
, and many of Hegel’s ideas were thus obviously significant to the intellectual and political traditions of French Marxism. The demand of Hegel’s “method” that one find an immanent sense within phenomena rather than defining them in terms of a pre-established standard of rationality or normalcy also had a natural affinity with psychoanalysis and its recognition of “illness” as autonomously meaningful. And Hegel’s notion of sense as something that is not established in advance and held in reserve but is
realized in giving oneself ...